Vai people

Vai people
Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Sierra Leone1,205[2]
Islam majority • Christianity minority •
Related ethnic groups
Kono, Gola, Kpelle, Mende, Loma, Gbandi

The Vai are Mandé peoples that live mostly in Liberia, with a small minority living in south-eastern Sierra Leone. The Vai are known for their indigenous writing system known as the Vai syllabary, developed in the 1820s by Momolu Duwalu Bukele and other Vai elders.[3] Over the course of the 19th century, literacy in the writing system became widespread. Its use declined over the 20th century, but modern computer technology may enable a revival.

The Vai people speak the Vai language, which is one of the Mande languages. The Sierra Leonean Vai are predominantly found in Pujehun District around the Liberian border. Many Sierra Leonean villages that border Liberia are populated by the Vai. In total, only about 1200 Vai live in Sierra Leone.[4]

Group of Vai women and girls, 1907


The earliest written documentation of the Vai is by Dutch merchants sometime in the first half of the 17th century, denoting a political group near Cape Mount.[5] The Vai are, however, likely the people called Gallinas by the Portuguese, which has them settled in the area by the mid 15th century. Led by the Camara clan, one of the earliest Mandinka inhabitants of Manding region, they had come southwest to raid and trade in salt and Kola nuts.[6]

Oral histories transmitted by Momolu Massaquoi describe a Mandinka king sending expeditions south from the Manding region to discover the sea and stimulate a trade in salt. The members of these expeditions intermarried with local Gola people to create the Vai, but they retained strong trade links with the Mandinka of the interior.[7]

Culture and education[edit]

In many aspects, the Vai are a unique African ethnicity. Many believe[who?] that the region inhabited by the Vai is the original home of the Poro, a male secret society known throughout West Africa. The Vai are also quite musical.[8] They play many instruments and perform dances on special occasions.[9]

The Vai have three types of schooling. The first and most important is the bush school, where the children learn traditional Vai socialization skills, important survival skills, and other traits of village life for four to five years. Second is the English school; some Vai children attend English schools to learn the English language. Finally, there are the Quranic schools, where Vai children are taught the Arabic language under the guidance of the local Muslim religious leader.[citation needed]

Vai script

Religion and spiritual belief[edit]

The Vai are predominantly Muslim and have for centuries practiced traditions rooted in studying the Quran,[10] with a minority being Christian.

These monotheistic religions however coexist with traditional beliefs in the supernatural, and shamanistic practices are common as people consider themselves to be surrounded by spirits that can change into living creatures or objects. These spirits are believed to have the power to do evil to individuals or to the whole tribe. The Vai perform ceremonies for the dead in which they leave articles of clothing and food near the graves of the deceased.


Most Vai make their living by farming the fertile land. Rice is their staple crop and can be cultivated with other vegetables on upland plots of cleared land. In addition to rice, crops such as cotton, corn, pumpkins, bananas, ginger, coffee, and cocoa are raised. The Vai also gather various nuts and berries from the forests. The palm tree is an important commodity to the Vai. Nuts, butter, wine, fuel, soap, and baskets are among its many derivatives.

Notable Vai people[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Liberia - World Directory of Minorities & Indigenous Peoples". Minority Rights Group. June 19, 2015.
  2. ^ "Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census National Analytical Report" (PDF). Statistics Sierra Leone. October 2017. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  3. ^ Grenoble, Lenore A.; Lindsay J. Whaley (2006). Saving Languages: An Introduction to Language Revitalization. Cambridge University Press. pp. 107–. ISBN 978-0-521-01652-0. Scribner and Cole conducted fieldwork with the Vai people of Liberia in the 1970s.3 The Vai had developed their own syllabary in the 1820s or 1830s.
  4. ^ "Sierra Leone 2015 Population and Housing Census national analytical report" (PDF). Statistics Sierra Leone. October 2017. pp. 89–99.
  5. ^ Koelle, Sigismund Wilhelm (1854). Outlines of a grammar of the Vei language, together with a Vei-English vocabulary. And an account of the discovery and nature of the Vei mode of syllabic writing. London Church Missionary House.
  6. ^ Person, Yves (1971). "Review: Ethnic Movements and Acculturation in Upper Guinea since the Fifteenth Century". African Historical Studies. 4 (3): 676. doi:10.2307/216536. JSTOR 216536. Retrieved 16 July 2023.
  7. ^ Massing, Andrew (1985). "The Mane, the Decline of Mali, and Mandinka Expansion towards the South Windward Coast" (PDF). Cahiers d'Études Africaines. 25 (97): 36–7. doi:10.3406/cea.1985.2184. Retrieved 16 July 2023.
  8. ^ Monts, Lester P. (recordist), Monts, Jeanne (recordist) (1982). Music of the Vai of Liberia (LP). New York, NY: Folkways Records.
  9. ^ Monts, Lester P. (1988). An Annotated Glossary of Vai Musical Language. Societe d'Etudes Linguistiques et Anthropologiques de France. Peeters Publishers. p. 144. ISBN 978-2877230131.
  10. ^ Scribner, Sylvia; Ethel Tobach (1997). Mind and Social Practice: Selected Writings of Sylvia Scribner. Cambridge University Press. p. 193. ISBN 978-0-521-46767-4.